Control vs influence: what’s the best way to manage?

Were you a good or a naughty kid growing up? Like most people, I could be both.

Bringing up children involves a mix of direct control and indirect influence. Control physically limits what we can do (“Robert, don’t hit your brother…”) whilst influence – or lack thereof – informs our actions when free from direct control (*whack!*).

In the world of work we think in terms of ‘policy’ and ‘culture’, but the dynamic is the same. Policy tells me I shouldn’t have my mobile phone on at work. Culture tells me it’s wrong to let down my customers or colleagues by checking Facebook on company time – even if no one’s watching.

Whilst control and influence are not mutually exclusive (some organisations can exercise both high control and influence – the SAS, for instance) most managers exhibit bias for one or the other. The former lawyer in me believes in strict control by robust policies, but I mainly listen to my inner naughty kid and try to lead Yapster by soft power and influence. That’s because I need to trust my colleagues to do the right thing by our customers and each other, whether I’m there or not.

Through our work with a range of retail and hospitality businesses I often encounter managers who have the opposite bias to me. They sleep better when they feel in control. When I ask why, they point out that the part-time nature of their labour force and high staff turnover limits their organisation’s ability to manage effectively through culture. Hard policy and management discipline is the quickest way to integrate new joiners and maintain a tight operational ship.

In matters of brand, they are surely right. When a customer walks into a high fashion retailer, for instance, they are right to expect to see high quality, high fashion garments, all bearing the relevant trademark label and brand colours etc. It would be damaging to have hundreds of different variants of the brand across their store network.

But I find this line of argument less convincing when it comes to personnel. How can a manager effectively “control” customer experience at point of sale? Personally, I hate “scripted” up-selling questions, where a sales associate offers me a product for which he or she feels no personal enthusiasm and which doesn’t match my personal needs. The £1 jumbo bar of chocolate at the train station newsagents is a classic example. I’m much more likely to be tempted by a good book recommendation, at ten times the price.

I believe effective revenue maximisation (upselling) at the point of sale is a cultural challenge, not a matter of training and control. Sales associates have to care about both the customer’s needs and the business’ product range so that they can match the two whenever opportunity arises. You can’t make someone care.

At Yapster, we spend a lot of time working with our customers and users to understand their wants and motivations. One way in which we’re encouraging staff to develop better product knowledge and customer service is by creating friendly competitions to inject an element of fun into the upselling process.

This won’t be the right answer for everyone, of course. Some teams are influenced by peer recognition, or interesting updates from designers in the product development team. Ultimately it doesn’t really matter what it is, it’s about finding what influences the behaviours you are looking for and amplifying this to full effect.

I’d love to hear what motivates your people. As ever, you can reach me at or via @rjliddiard on Twitter.

Yapster Admin